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September 06, 2017

Are the Eagles good? Full roster review, defense edition

Eagles NFL

The Philadelphia Eagles have finalized their 53-man roster, sat out on waivers, and filled out their 10-man practice squad. With their first game of the season kicking off this week, let's take a deep look at the roster on both sides of the ball. We started with the offense on Tuesday. Today we'll look at the defense.

Defensive end

Brandon Graham Chris Long Steven Means 
 Vinny CurryDerek Barnett  


The Eagles' lack that one true stud edge rusher that opposing offenses fear and have to specifically game plan around so he doesn't wreck the game. They hope that in time, Derek Barnett can be that guy. For now, what the Eagles do have is good defensive ends in numbers.

Brandon Graham's sack numbers over his career are underwhelming, but anyone who has watched him play can see how disruptive he is, both as a pass rusher and against the run. At some point, he's going to approach 10 sacks, right? 

Vinny Curry will begin this season as the starter, but it's really only a matter of time before he loses his job to Barnett. Whether that happens this year or next, this is likely Curry's last season with the team, as he'll count for $11 million against the cap in 2018. Ideally, the Eagles will get some impact plays from Curry, like they did in 2014, when he had 9 sacks and 4 forced fumbles. Schwartz was encouraged by what he saw of Curry in camp but was clear to note that that doesn't mean much.

"I think Vinny Curry also had an outstanding training camp," said Schwartz. "He was very good against the run and pass. He was as productive as I've seen him. He was not on the ground as much as he's been. I think he's a much-improved player.

"Again, the proof is in the course of the season."

Barnett looked like the real deal in the preseason, as he was able to get to the quarterback and finish, while also showing extreme hustle chasing plays down from behind. He's one of the players I'm most looking forward to watching this season.

"I think a lot was made with him being a bit of a one-trick pony," Schwartz said of Barnett. "He was an edge, speed rush guy in college. And he had such the ability to do that that I think he got labeled a guy that's all he could do. And I think we saw more in him than that. Like I said, he's played tough against the run. He's been instinctive. He's been productive when he's been out there."

Chris Long was a solid addition entering his 10th year in the league. While he has slowed down a bit from when he was in his prime, Long remains a high-quality reserve "fastball."

And then there's Steven Means, who is very quickly becoming a Schwartz favorite.

"You mentioned four defensive ends," Schwartz said in response to a reporter about the defensive ends. "I'll take that further with five. I think Steven Means is a quality player, whether he's active or not on a weekly basis, I know this much: He'll be ready when his opportunity comes. Maybe it will be because of an injury or because somebody's not producing as much as they should. But I think Steven Means is also a quality guy. I like a five-man group up there."

Defensive tackle

 1
 Fletcher CoxDestiny Vaeao  
 Timmy JerniganBeau Allen Elijah Qualls 


A position that was looking quite thin at one point this offseason, but now looks to be in decent shape is defensive tackle. Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan form a duo that will be difficult to block on passing downs. To be determined if the Eagles lose any effectiveness against the run with Bennie Logan leaving to play for the Kansas City Chiefs.

After a highly productive 2015 season, Cox had a "down season" in 2016, at least statistically, when his numbers dipped across the board:

Fletcher Cox Tackles Sacks FF 
2015 71 9.5 
2016 43 6.5 


Part of the reason for Cox's down season, however, was because he often saw double teams, and players like Logan and Connor Barwin could not make opposing offensive coordinators pay by beating one-on-one matchups.

The hope is that Jernigan, Barnett, and Curry will give the Eagles players who can take advantage of the added attention given to Cox. While Logan is a superior run defender to Jernigan, Jernigan is clearly the more disruptive player against the pass. In three seasons in the NFL, Jernigan has 13 sacks. In four seasons in Philly, Logan had 5.5.

As for the reserves, Beau Allen's return from a pectoral injury suffered in March came as something of a surprise. He played in the final preseason game against the New York Jets and was disruptive. He'll be a go for the regular season. While his stat line of 67 tackles and one career sack isn't eye-popping, Allen gives the Eagles a prototypical big-bodied run stopper, at 6'3, 327 pounds, which is something they would have otherwise lacked.

And then there's Destiny Vaeao and Elijah Qualls. Vaeao will be active on game day and should see sporadic playing time, while it's likely that Qualls will be inactive on game day, at least to start the season.

Linebacker

Nigel Bradham Najee Goode 
Jordan Hicks Joe Walker 
Mychal Kendricks Kamu Grugier-Hill 


In my view, one of the most underrated players in Philadelphia sports is Jordan Hicks, who not only makes easily visible big-time plays but also may be the best coverage linebacker in the NFL.

In just 24 professional games (1.5 seasons), Hicks has 100 tackles, 7 INTs, 2 sacks, a forced fumble, 4 fumble recoveries, and 14 pass breakups. That is outstanding.

The Eagles mostly only play two linebackers, with Nigel Bradham being the other. Bradham has been one of the rare former "Schwartz imports" to actually be productive. In his first season with the Eagles, Bradham had 102 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 2 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and five pass breakups. That's not too bad either.

What the Eagles lack at linebacker is depth. Mychal Kendricks is the third linebacker and will be the first one off the bench if Hicks or Bradham go down. Kendricks had a great preseason, picking off three passes and often getting good pressure on the quarterback when he was allowed to blitz. Schwartz may try to find ways to get Kendricks on the field more often in more of a blitzing/attacking role that better suits his skill set. For that to happen, Schwartz will have to trust what he has in his secondary to not give up big plays with a linebacker being taken out of coverage.

The rest of the depth is iffy. Najee Goode, Joe Walker, and Kamu Grugier-Hill should all contribute on special teams (especially Grugier-Hill), but none of those players have much in the way of experience playing in the regular defense.  

Cornerback/Safety

 
 CBRonald Darby   
 SMalcolm Jenkins Corey Graham Chris Maragos 
 SRodney McLeod Jaylen Watkins  
 CBJalen Mills Rasul Douglas  
 CBPatrick Robinson Dexter McDougle  


On Tuesday, we published a detailed look at the secondary. It's long, so rather than copy and paste it here, we encourage you to go check that out here.

Specialists

 
Caleb Sturgis  
Donnie Jones  
LS Rick Lovato  
KR Wendell Smallwood Nelson Agholor 
PR Darren Sproles  


As for the specialists, Caleb Sturgis has improved every season of his career:

Caleb Sturgis FG percentage 
2013 76.5% 
2014 78.4% 
2015 81.8% 
2016 86.8% 


He also did a great job on kickoffs, lofting kicks with good hang time, allowing the Eagles' coverage units to get down the field to almost always make tackles shy of the touchback mark at the 25-yard line. In fact, opposing teams averaged 19.1 yards per kick return, which was second-lowest in the NFL.

Donnie Jones returns as the best punter player in the history of the NFL, and Rick Lovato will take over for Jon Dorenbos as the long snapper after the team traded away fan favorite Jon Dorenbos.

In regard to Lovato vs. Dorenbos, I was told that Lovato legitimately beat out Dorenbos during camp, and if the Eagles hadn't traded Dorenbos to the Saints for a seventh-round pick, they would have cut him.

The kick returner will likely be Wendell Smallwood, with perhaps Nelson Agholor getting some looks there as well, while punt return duties will be handled once again by the always dangerous Darren Sproles.


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